No matter how much inflation hurts prices in Southeast Asia, the area steadfastly remains one of the cheapest expat destinations in the world. Even as rents in larger cities like Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City swell, those in neighboring towns–even nearby neighborhood–remain affordable. You’ll always find ways to save money, but you’ll also find an equal number of ways to blow money in Southeast Asia.
It’s real easy to go on a gambling or partying spree,
and end up flat broke within a few months.
Since the cost of living in Southeast Asia is so cheap, plenty of expats procrastinate on things like work and instead settle on expensive habits that quickly siphon their hard-earned money away.
A True Story
My friend Damon came to Vietnam with over $12,000 in savings. He’d sold his Honda Accord back in the States and came with a really nice nest-egg. His plan was to find a teaching job once he got to Vietnam. We met as soon as he got there and ended up partying like crazy the first few nights. I was ok with blowing a little money, since I’d also only been there for a few days and it was my first time in Vietnam.
I soon moved on and did my travel blog thing in the Mekong, while Damon stayed back in Ho Chi Minh City. He was set on finding work as soon as possible. Several months later, I returned to Vietnam and met with him. Wow. I remember just how rough he looked. In an attempt to save money, he’d moved to a semi-dangerous neighborhood where the rent was real cheap. He’d gotten involved with tons of women. He still had no job; he said it was hard finding anything.
So I started applying. I got a $3,000 job, plus commission (English Center manager) within one week. He said I got lucky. I applied for 8 more jobs and got all 8. Needless to say, Damon faded into the woodwork of all that is wild and dangerous. To this day, I’ve never heard from him again–neither have any other mutual friends.
I know tons of people who went down that path.
There are so many ways to blow money in Southeast Asia it’ll make your head spin. From lustful romances to bad business dealings with fellow expats, the list I read about in the papers seems ever-growing. Perhaps many a newcomer, especially, feel the warm and fuzzies as soon as they step off the plane into a new exotic locale. They smell opportunity or a new lease on life.
I can’t tell you what the reasons are,
But seductive as Southeast Asia is, you really have to watch your spending.
I’ve found most people lost the bulk of their savings for the reasons I’ll list below and, at the end, all of the reasons simply tied into a lack of discipline and foresight:
1. Party In Your Pants
Whichever way you look at it, constant partying is sure to rapidly drain you of funds. Add to that the bargirl scene and you have serious cause for worry. Plenty of expats arrive and take advantage of the low cost of alcohol in Southeast Asia and end up drowning themselves in all kinds liquor. When money grows tight, they switch to local or home brews.
They loose motivation and soon get into a groove of showing up at the local bar to meet “new-found friends”, who only end up bumming more money from them.
2. Who Needs A Job, Man?
I’ve seen this one happen again and again: Folk getting their teaching certificates or arriving with a newly-minted CV, only to be waylaid by the lazy and cheap way of life in Southeast Asia. Instead of finding ways to make money, they master all kinds ways to blow money in Southeast Asia.
The first of these is to spend money without making any, or to indefinitely postpone getting a job as it if it were beneath them to work. I know you’re saying “oh, that won’t be me”–well, I hate to say it, but everyone’s said the same thing. It has happened so much its #2 rank is well-deserved.
3. Chasing Girls/Guys, ‘Cause You’re A Natural Born Hunter
What could you possibly add to #1 and #2 that would make things spiral out of control? Sex, of course! Chasing sex will help you waste money in Southeast Asia in record time. Much as most won’t admit it, many people come to Southeast Asia for the ease of getting sex–and I’m not talking about guys only! I’ve known plenty of girls who cant’ seem to stop chasing guys.
It sort of baffles me why people’s common sense evaporates at the airport. Sex abounds in Southeast Asia and however long you budgeted for, cut that by 80% if girls, guys, sex or any other hedonistic debauchery gets in the way. Don’t mistake sex for bargirls. I’m talking about chasing all kinds of sex–from bars to online dating.
4. Fly Everywhere: Life of a VIP
Flights are real cheap in Southeast Asia, but why blow money on this expensive option when you could take a minivan or bus instead? You can grab a flight for $40 or so, or pay $5-10 for the train or bus. If you love traveling, then your travel budget will get shot if you insist on taking the most expensive route.
Wherever you choose to go, check out the bus or train schedules. You can save tons of money by traveling using ground transport and the experience will be far more rewarding. You’ll be able to check out the gorgeous countryside, which you won’t see from the windows of an airport or an airplane at 30,000 feet.
5. Dead Ventures
Because scams in Southeast Asia have received so much coverage in the news and on blogs, most modern travelers will be wary at first. One thing very few new expats are aware of, however, is that many lose the bulk of their money to <drum roll> other expats! There are tons of expat scammers peppered throughout Southeast Asia.
The entire area is breeding grounds for the distorted and aberrants. Everybody who possibly escaped criminal convictions back home can be found right here, bragging about how they were captains or commanders in some obscure battalion. Never, ever agree to invest with any expats you meet in these parts. If you absolutely insist on blowing your money in Southeast Asia, give it to your bargirl wife instead.
6. Opening Up A Business
I’m all about entrepreneurship, but I see expats starting up retail storefronts or coffee shops without an inkling of previous experience. It’s more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach, which is okay if you have tens of thousands of dollars to spare. Shops in Southeast Asia seem to continuously open and close, no matter the good or bad reputation you build.
Between unstable governments, corrupt cops, corrupt authorities, and hostile business environments, there’s no guesswork involved. Invest what you’re willing to lose and ask yourself why your longest-surviving competitor is still around. Then ask yourself why everyone else isn’t.
7. Budget, Smudget
Ask local expats what apps they use to keep their budget. 90% will tell you it’s all in the head (as if that wasn’t bad enough). Compare that to numbers stateside, where 30-40% do keep a budget vs. the 5-10% here in Southeast Asia, and you’ll quickly understand why so many here go flat-broke in record time. The words cheap or affordable are but a tint of color on glasses.
If someone really wants to survive in this element, they absolutely must keep track of every penny they spend. They need to adapt and rethink their habits based on their budget. It’s very easy to lose track of your spending when everything is cheap, only to find out you actually spent more here in a month than you did back home!
There are many more ways to blow money in Southeast Asia, from drugs, to cigarettes, to gambling, bar-fining, and much, much more. Most people just don’t realize that even normal living can get quite expensive. Plenty of the Western brands back home can be found in Southeast Asia, and their prices are similar too.
And whereas it’s true you can live for real cheap in some countries like Nepal or Vietnam,
the kind of cheap we’re talking about is local living.
Most people wouldn’t want to live that way. The notion of such dirt-cheap living can be romantic at first, it breathes adventure, but it’s no way to live in the long-term.
Pondering a move to Southeast Asia means understanding the true cost of living there, as well as the top ways to blow money in Southeast Asia, the planning around the facts.
Personally, moving to Thailand has been one of the best things I’ve done in my life, but it’s come at steep learning costs. I’ve had to adapt, to budget, to create a livelihood.
I’ve had to survive and thrive.
And you will have to as well.
What financial advice would you give anyone looking to move to Southeast Asia? Has anyone you’ve known blown all their savings here?
Additional resources I highly recommend:
- 7 Ways Cambodia Can Solve Its Foreign Dude Problem
- Why Are So Many Westerners Homeless in Thailand?
- 5 Best Dating Apps in Thailand
- An Expat Female Living in Vietnam: Zoe’s Story